The kids are still alright, even in their 70s
Despite turning 50, The Who can still sell out and rock out Hyde Park. Arriving on stage Pete Townshend proclaimed “You are a long way away, but we will f****** reach you.” They could have reached France on this beautiful Friday evening in London.
The Who, now of legend status clearly didn’t need to rely on gimmicks to win over a crowd. It was refreshing to see a proper rock n roll gig devoid of overly-emphatic entrances with smoke machines and lasers; the opening chords of debut single I Can’t Explain were enough to transport those old enough in the crowd back to 1965. It was incredible to see a huge number of young Mods donning their best Fred Perry and Ben Sherman shirts brought to a frenzy by Townshend, 70, and Roger Daltrey, now 71. The opening number was followed by rock anthems The Seeker and Who Are You, it was evident that The Who were keen to please the 70,000 strong crowd tonight.
The performance was almost a warm up for their triumphant Glastonbury set the following Sunday in which Townshend took a jab at Kanye West’s typically delusional comments about being ‘the greatest living rock star’. Though The Who have halved in size, are now into their 70s and on stage theatrics are minimal they proved they can still stake a claim for this position. As Townshend said, they are still able to ‘blow away younger bands’, and they proved that tonight.
This was part of The Who’s Hits 50 tour, and we were certainly treated to some of rocks greatest hits. I Can See For Miles, My Generation, You Better You Bet, the Paul Weller-requested Pictures Of Lily and Behind Blue Eyes in which the band subtly performed in front of two giant blue eyes, to name a few. Pinball Wizard into See Me, Feel Me was a particular highlight. Songs from Quadrophenia were rarer, largely due to the band’s tour of the album in 2013. However, we didn’t need reminding that that album and Tommy were the original and defining rock operas that inspired so many, exemplifying Pete Townshend’s unique songwriting and artistic talents. Notable exclusions from the set were Tea and Theatre, Magic Bus and oddly Substitute, surely one of the first songs on any Who fans’ dream set list. Other notable yet inevitable exclusions included deceased original members Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Drummer Moon and bassist Entwistle, are arguably the greatest performers of their respective instruments of all time, and we were reminded of them when their pictures were displayed on the big screen montages. Zak Starkey and Pino Palladino were fitting replacements for the irreplaceable pair.
Roger Daltrey lacking his iconic curls and bare chest still has his legendary dance moves, swinging his mic round passionately as if after 50 years he still has a point to prove. Pete Townshend, pioneer of guitar showmanship didn’t hold back with his infamous windmilling, but his age limited him to few leaps and unfortunately guitar smashes have been defunct since 2004. The legendary tension between Daltrey and Townshend is still evident. But this was the tension that fuelled the pair’s undoubted chemistry and made the band’s songs and live performances so ferocious. Without trying to sound condescending, while I was delighted and privileged to see them with rumours of retirement constantly circulating and Daltrey’s health restricting their touring commitments, I couldn’t help but wish I had gotten to see them in their heyday. Set in the basement of a sweaty London club, imagine Keith Moon destroying his drumkit while undoubtedly intoxicated, Entwistle subtly laying down huge bass lines, Daltrey’s original macho showman oozing charisma and sex appeal, with Townshend destroying his Fender Stratocaster, displaying the theatrics that made them the most famous and exciting band to see live; it is tough to find any rock n roll fan who wouldn’t dream of reliving this. Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that they are still doing an immense job showing the youngsters how rock n roll is done.
I challenge anyone to find a gig that ends so triumphantly, finishing with the songs that bookended classic album Who’s Next, Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Fooled Again. Baba O’Riley sent roars of ‘teenage wasteland’ around London; grown men sang the lyric like they were desperately clinging to their childhood which they have just regained for this one beautiful summers evening. From one huge anthem to another, doubts I’d originally had over Daltrey’s ageing voice were quashed when he hit the final scream during set-closing Won’t Get Fooled Again. As Daltrey growled his way to the epic end, Townshend continued to windmill his way to the furious finale. The marathon track could have lasted another ten minutes, but opting against an encore the band finished on a definite high, sending their army of Mods home more than satisfied.
The musical influence and longevity of The Who is unquestionable when considering the incredible line up on the day: Mod torch bearer Paul Weller of The Jam and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, represent the two most significant British bands of the 1980s. In addition, the undercard included Gaz Coombes (formerly of Supergrass) representing Britpop and the Kaiser Chiefs, post Brit-Pop Indie; these artists would possibly not be here if not for The Who. Their cultural impact and timelessness is obvious too, as thousands of fans of all ages streamed out of Hyde Park and into the abyss of London: Fred Perry shirts, sideburns and parkas as far as the eye could see, children in Quadrophenia shirts, and the soundtrack of ‘we are the mods’ ringing out. They were clearly important for music, but they became the main driving force behind a sub-culture and the cultures that came from that, vitally providing the voice of a disillusioned, disenfranchised generation and generations to come.
This was just another reminder, if the world needed one, that The Who, now half a century in age, must be held in the same league as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones when considering Britain’s rock n roll royalty.